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Russ Kick’s "The Graphic Canon"

The World’s Classics in Three Volumes

by CHARLES LARSON

First, a confession.  I’ve been reading Russ Kick’s dazzling three-volume anthology of graphic versions of the world’s great literature for more than a year.  Volume 1 (The Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons) was released in May of last year; Volume 2 (“Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray), in October of 2012; Volume 3 (Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest) has just been published.  I’ve been dipping into the delicious bon-bons (bon-mots? bon-tons?) for the good part of a year, and that’s the way I’d recommend reading them, rather than in one fell swoop.  Kick’s editorial genius is enormous, not just for picking the classics to be illustrated but assigning them to over 130 illustrators (though a few of the selections are reprints of previously published material) for a staggering total of 189 literary works, totaling 1344 pages.

The illustrators’ interpretations of each literary work are totally eclectic which strikes me as just the right approach for such a massive undertaking.  Thus, some selections (Kevin Dixon’s Gilgamesh, for example), concentrate on one episode from the longer work, and are composed of dozens of panels, including lengthy passages and dialogue from the original text.  Others (such as Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf) employ no written text at all but are rendered completely by visual images which relate an obvious narrative.  Many of the poems (Diana Evans’ one-page rendering of Emily Dickinson’s “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed”) include the full text on the page (or pages), in addition to one or multiple images. Still others (Tim Fish’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, for example) are akin to the Classic Comics (1941-1971), that is, comic strip versions of celebrated works that were popular decades ago and that tell most of the original story.   Finally there is the staccato approach to a classic (such as Tara Seibel’s lengthy rendition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables) that runs to thirty pages of Volume 2, but if you aren’t already familiar with the story, you will be confused.  Which is only to say that many of the selections in Kick’s three-volume anthology act more as counterpoint, as further points of illumination for readers already familiar with the original work.

Except for the poems, the limited approach to narratives can sometimes be more frustrating than satisfying.  Moby-Dick pulls twelve illustrations from Matt Kish’s brilliant 552 page rendering of Melville’s masterpiece (see my review in CounterPunch, Nov. 11, 2011). They demonstrate Kish’s great versatility but, similarly, leave a sense of fragmentation for the reader who hasn’t seen the entire work. Yet, less is sometimes better than more in some of the selections in The Graphic Canon.  Several of Lisa Brown’s reductive versions of classic literary texts, which she calls Three Panel Review (originally from the San Francisco Chronicle) are included, scattered graphic-canon-coverrandomly in Volumes 2 and 3.  Brown’s three images for Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter couldn’t be more on target.  Image one shows Hester with an A on her breast and growing out of that letter: “A”dulteress.  The second image is of Arthur Dimmesdale, also with an A on his breast, stretching into “A”postate.  And for the third panel, the word Aftermath floats above an image of Pearl.  That pretty much sums the novel up.  I’d say it sums it up much more succinctly than Al J’s single, luminous image of Hester, which gets the official entry for the book.  That image would be a gorgeous cover for Hawthorne’s classic; but I can’t think of it as a graphic “version” of the novel.

These multiple approaches to great literary works in no way can be considered substitutions for the originals, reminding me of my own past history of the Classic Comics from my childhood.  In his introduction to Volume 2, Kick pays homage to them, noting that the series later took on the name Classics Illustrated.  Kick writes, “Lots of baby boomers have fond memories of this series, but frankly they weren’t that great.  As a rule, the artwork was uninspired—not bad, but nothing to take note of—and the works were stripped down and sanitized.  It was a very workman-like transcription of the most superficial highlights of the work.”  I’d certainly agree with that, but they got me hooked on the real books.  I remember that for $1.00 a year, I’d get one classic comic sent to me each month, and they certainly triggered my subsequent addiction to books.  Of course, sometimes the opposite occurred.  I’ve never read Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities because I couldn’t stand the Classic Comics version.  And that remark comes from a guy who tries to re-read one Dickens novel every year.

Kick’s artists are never uninspired, which is why these three volumes are genuinely things of beauty—lush, gorgeous, dazzling visual recreations of the literary works we (at least of a certain generation) devoured.  Yes, some of the selections are not exactly what you might expect, but that’s also some of the pleasure.  For example, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary isn’t here but, instead, the writer’s “Letter to George Sand.”  Letter you say?  Yes, and Kick makes a strong case that letters are part of the literary canon.  But this didn’t quite do it for Flaubert for me and this is no reflection on Corine Mucha’s imaginative drawings.  Ditto, “Living on $1000 a Year in Paris,” by Ernest Hemingway, originally published in the Toronto Star, in 1922.  Steve Rolston’s images of Paris are interesting, but was there no major Hemingway work that could have been included, or, was this a copyright issue of some kind?  Certainly that is suggested by the second Hemingway work included in the volume—a short story he published in his high school newspaper.  There are other curiosities like this sprinkled throughout the second and third volumes: “The Hill,” by William Faulkner (why not “The Bear”?), though The Sound and the Fury is included; “The Top” and “I Give Up,” by Franz Kafka instead of The Metamorphosis.

Critics of world literature might quibble that the three volumes are heavily weighted in favor of Western literature and that is, indeed, true, in spite of such works as the  Mahabharata, The Tale of Genji, tales from The Arabian Nights, poems by Rumi, and a few others.  There is only one work from Africa: Ben Okri’s brilliant novel, The Famished Road, represented by four pages of colorful drawings by Aidan Koch.  If you haven’t read the novel, the illustrations will make little sense to you.  This is also true of the brief introductory remark that describes the story as being narrated by “Azaro, a ‘ghost child’—the Nigerian name for a child who almost dies at birth, then spends his life with a foot in both worlds, able to see the dead, demons, and other spirits.” That’s somewhat misleading, as are other so-called facts in the introductory notes to each selection, written by Kick.  My favorite is Kick’s statement that Marlow—in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—“sails down an African river” in search of Kurtz, his quest.  It’s up the river, Kick, and “sails” suggests more of a holiday trip instead of Marlow’s momentous undertaking.

But these are quibbles.

Fact is, I adore these three volumes and most (but not all) of their contents.  So let me highlight just a few of the multiple gems awaiting the reader of these magnificent collections.  In Volume 1, Gareth Hinds’ frightening illustrations of the Cyclops passage of The Odyssey are as scary as any Hollywood horror movie.  Hinds slips in and out of colors, depicting the most horrific incidents in red and black, and the monster himself leaves nothing to the imagination.  Valerie Schrag has done quite a number with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, especially with her hilarious depictions of horny men, walking around with uncontrollable erections—something you probably haven’t seen in a staged version of the comedy.  I was totally dazzled by Nicolle Rager Fuller’s instructive drawings of Chapter 4 (“Natural Selection; or the Survival of the Fittest”) from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  Fuller’s illustrations support Kick’s remark, in Vol 2, when he says that the selections in The Graphic Canon should be regarded as educational tools, supplemental materials for the original works.  Other favorites:  Rebecca Migdal’s bold rendering of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; Robert Crumb’s signature version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (pure, unadulterated Crumb); Gustavo Rinaldi’s singular but unforgettable image for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

This isn’t fair.  There are dozens of other illustrators/artists who could just as easily be mentioned here.  It’s a little like citing one’s favorite entries in an encyclopedia.  Don’t even try.  Stick to the entirety, the whole remarkable achievement.  As I said at the beginning, Russ Kick is an inspired genius.  Or maybe a genius inspired.  Whatever way, you will not forget The Graphic Canon.

Russ Kick, ed.  The Graphic Canon.

Seven Stories Press:   Three Volumes, 1600 pp., Boxed: $125.00

(Vol 1, $39.95; Vol 2, $39.95; Vol 3, $44.95)

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.